Daniel Carlson

"The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising." — Pauline Kael

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Category: Music (page 1 of 9)

Scattered Thoughts About Bro-Country

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• If you want to understand America, you have to understand the South. And if you want to understand the South, you have to understand country music.

• Country — I’m talking here about mainstream country music, not offshoots like alt-country — is so rooted in geography and ideology that it’s impossible to separate the art from its roots. Other genres and performers have had ties to different places, sure: musical sounds vary by region and history, and lyricists have romanticized specific places in ways that make those places feel universal, eternal. (E.g., Springsteen’s mythical Jersey Americana.) But most pop and rock is about feeling, not place. Love, heartache, excitement, partying, story, dance, whatever: the songs aren’t designed with a specific city or home town in mind. Country, though, is descended from Southern communities and tied inextricably to Southern states. By extension, that means it’s tied to ideologies that are traditionally popular in the South, like religion or social dynamics.

• An example of the religious specificity of country and its relation to region: Dotted throughout the South are Churches of Christ — autonomous churches of varying size (some downright tiny) that are typically conservative and trace their roots to the Restoration Movement. These churches don’t answer to any kind of diocese or broad leader, and they tend to be off the radar in ways that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t. The denomination doesn’t really have much of a pop culture presence, or an awareness among the general public, but it has still been mentioned in hit country songs like this one and this one. That is the closeness of the bond between country and the South. Many of the genre’s songs are acts of in-group identification.

• Country music is often reactive; that is, as much as it relies on certain sounds and styles, it just as often seeks to define itself in opposition to pop, rock, and mainstream genres and ideologies. This goes back to the South’s notion of representing itself as set apart, special, and differently formed than the rest of the country. It is not even remotely accidental that a region of the country that once seceded to form its own nation still champions a musical genre that is stylistically and narratively based in opposition and separation.

• Country’s reactiveness tends to make itself known most sharply when mainstream culture is undergoing progressive shifts. In 1969, with the youth movement and civil rights battles in full swing, Merle Haggard released “Okie From Muskogee,” an anti-protest song that railed against pot, draft-dodging, long hair, and just about every possible hippie stereotype you could name. This is country music: a down-home sound that resists social change.

• Similarly, periods of conservatism tend to bring out more peaceful, nostalgic country music. The Reagan presidency saw a rise in pop-oriented country that yearned for a return to the good old days. Songs like The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days)” literally spelled out these requests, and the mega-success of the band Alabama (who had 21 consecutive No. 1 hits on the country charts from 1980-1986) relied on it, as well, with songs like “Song of the South,” “High Cotton,” “Mountain Music,” and the blue-collar ode “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’).” Ronnie Milsap’s “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)” is another ode to Boomer wish-fulfillment.

• As the 1990s arrived, though, bringing with them Bill Clinton and renewed mainstream discussions of social progression, country music veered into neotraditionalism, which placed an emphasis on classic sounds. This was more of an aesthetic rebellion than a lyrical one, more interested in drawing a line in the musical sand, and many of the artists who emerged here put out some strong music.

• Country’s opposition isn’t solely about who’s in the White House, though, but about the social discussions we’re having as a nation at large. It was the first George W. Bush administration’s launch of the war on terror, after all, that gave us Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” — though interestingly, Keith had started his career with blander tunes in the neotraditional era. It wasn’t until he caricatured himself that he went to a new level of fame (or infamy).

• This is the context of bro-country, a recent subgenre that assembles song lyrics from a list composed of dirt roads, short skirts, and fishing trips. Critic Grady Smith made this in 2013 to examine the phenomenon:

• Bro-country’s reductive, almost hilariously one-dimensional understanding of women and relationships was skewered in 2014’s “Girl in a Country Song,” by Maddie & Tae. The song is its own call for a return to the past, one in which women were at least allowed to do something more than wear cutoffs and ride shotgun in pickups:

• Bro-country is the genre’s latest retaliation against broader cultural trends, this time those dealing with evolving ideas of marriage, relationships, and sexuality, as well as the openness with which such ideas are addressed. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states; award-winning TV shows revolve around transgender stories; pop culture storytelling now has gay characters whose sexuality is not a joke, nor their defining characteristic. Bro-country is a cliche-ridden attempt to push back at this. Its subtextual call for a return to the good ol’ days is similar to the one country music is always, in some way, sounding out, but this time it’s specifically about the nation’s changing attitudes toward its gay citizens and country music’s reticence to follow along.

• Country can be a tough place for gay artists to find acceptance. Performers like Chely Wright and Ty Herndon have come out, but given the genre’s historical connection to the South — and to Southern religions — country is still years (or decades) behind pop and rock. When Ricky Skaggs was ambushed by TMZ and asked his opinion about country singers coming out, he expressed his approval not that they be themselves, but that they should be accepted because “we’re all sinners.” This is the backdrop of country music. The importance of the connections between the music, the region, and the religion cannot be overstated.

• Bro-country, then, isn’t just the latest disposable fad within the genre, or a way to mark this particular era, but a reflection of the genre’s and the region’s discomfort with progressive attitudes toward and discussions of adult human sexuality outside the traditional “two straight white people in love” model. It’s a defense mechanism, born of a desire to avoid change and conflict and get back to the way things used to be. But things weren’t better in the great Back Then; they were just hidden. The best thing for country to do here is the thing it has the hardest time doing: embracing the future.

In Constant Sorrow All Through His Days: Heartbreak, Outsiders, and American Music

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I wrote about Inside Llewyn Davis, The Broken Circle Breakdown, and using folk/Americana music to process pain.

In Constant Sorrow All Through His Days: Heartbreak, Outsiders, and American Music (UPDATE: Also at Salon.)

King of the Rain

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Counting Crows’ “Rain King,” from their debut August and Everything After, goes in part:

I belong in the service of the queen
I belong anywhere but in between
She’s been lying, and I’ve been sinking
And I am the Rain King

I’m not here to parse Adam Duritz’s meaning, but to look at the way he echoes that language in “Goodnight Elisabeth,” from their sophomore effort, Recovering the Satellites:

If you wrap yourself in daffodils
I will wrap myself in pain
And if you’re the queen of California
Baby I am the king of the rain

This is the kind of in-universe connection you’d usually see in movies, TV, or books. Off the top of my head, a number of Stephen King novels make mention of events or people in his Dark Tower series, in effect turning a large amount of his work into one connected (if occasionally ungainly) body. Or there’s the way Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch appeared on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and then “Law & Order: SVU,” cementing those two separate shows as existing in the same world. (And you can, of course, go farther down the rabbit hole with Tommy Westphall.) One of my favorite movie examples is a small one: Michael Keaton as FBI agent Ray Nicolette in 1997’s Jackie Brown and 1998’s Out of Sight. The films have different stories, directors, and casts; he’s the only link.

For some reason, though, it feels rarer for such crossovers to happen in music. It also feels more special, and I think that’s because music is such a personal experience. We watch movies together, and we even watch TV together, but we listen to music by ourselves. It’s in our ears, or our car, and it becomes a soundtrack to our own lives. So little grace notes that connect songs across albums feel like gifts for listeners and fans, ways for you to feel connected on a deeper level. They just have that beautiful little spark.

The Refreshments have some, too. They only put out two albums before their label dropped them, and 1996’s Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy and 1997’s The Bottle & Fresh Horses feel like narrative complements to each other. The first one’s about relationships coming together, the second’s about how they fall apart. The first album’s “Down Together,” a love song about being in it for the long haul, says:

Cars break down and
People break down and
Other things break down, too
So let’s go
Down together, down together, down together
Let’s go down

The follow-up album’s “Fonder and Blonder,” a bittersweet break-up tune, goes:

Cars break down and
People break down and
Other things break down, too
I felt something slip when you left on your trip
And now I think I’m breaking down on you

You don’t have to know the first song to get the meaning of the second, but it helps. At any rate, it gives the second one more punch to connect it to the happier character of the first song and to wonder about the path he took to get where he is. John Mellencamp did the same thing with “Jack and Diane” and “Eden is Burning,” which charted young love and its apathetic decline.

I’m trying to find more examples, but I’m not even sure what this would be called. These aren’t just songs that reference other songs, but multiple songs by the same artist that reference each other. Song worlds? Song universes? Anyway, you get the idea. If you have any more examples, I’d love to hear them.

This music has been in my head and heart since I was 9 years old.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgazr_8x0cg

One Man’s Trash, That’s Another Man’s Come-Up

Mike Eagle

Mike Eagle

I got into alternative country in college. After growing up on mainstream country, I was still in love with the root of the sound — open and rangy, purely American — but less invested in artists or songs that felt, well, dumb. Mainstream country radio seemed to be all about picnics, first love, and a determination to equate patriotism with evangelical Christianity, but alt-country took the elements of the sound I loved and married them with great songwriting that embraced nuance. I remember the moment a friend pressed Wilco’s Being There into my hand and said “You need to own this,” and how that sent me back to A.M. and then into Uncle Tupelo. I remember burning a copy of Strangers Almanac from my roommate, and the first time I heard “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” What I really remember, though, is the lesson that genre and message are not the same thing. I’d grouped all country music together, when the truth was that a certain type of music could actually be used in a variety of different ways.

That’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from hip-hop, too. It can be so easy to confuse the part for the whole, and to assume that the entire genre is dedicated to songs about sex or the glorification of certain persona, if that persona is being flaunted satirically. The easy stuff gets airplay, just like it does in any genre (and that stuff can still be great), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other stories out there. Black Star talks about social issues. KRS-One started Stop the Violence. Macklemore likes thrift shops and loves gay people.

Alternative hip-hop artist recently appeared on WTF With Marc Maron to talk about all this, and he’s probably the best note to end on.

Eagle on music:

Maron: “You’re literally trying to integrate life as you’re living it, which is not the rap life, which is not the hackneyed idea, but it’s just a guy who’s getting older, who’s dealing with family responsibilities, who’s dealing with questions about identity issues as a 30- to 40-year-old dude, and you’re just laying that out.”

Eagle: “Right. I mean, a lot of the guys I’m grouped with in terms of sound, that’s what we attempt to do. Just kind of elevate the art form. That sounds kind of weird to say. But, you know, to me there’s a legitimacy in what rap music is in terms of expression, and there’s room for all of our individual experiences in it.”

Maron: “To have a record called Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes — it’s a counterintuitive cultural idea. And there’s a conscious attempt to stand alone outside of cultural expectations and also slightly racist expectations of what rappers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. So that’s sort of the defining tone of what alternative rap is.”

Eagle: “Right.”

Eagle on bias and music journalism:

Eagle: “The journalism is so dominated by that intention, that want for a nerdy guy to feel like he’s …”

Maron: “On the pulse of it.”

Eagle: “Yeah. It seems like they try to elevate a lot of things that are really crude.”

Maron: “Are you talking about the alternative music press in general?”

Eagle: “Yeah, and maybe even the mainstream music press, too. There’s this cultural voyeurism that happens in journalism that weirds me out sometimes.”

Maron: “It’s actually anti-journalism. It’s […] their version of courting controversy to get some juice. Right?”

Eagle: “I don’t know. I feel like a lot of them genuinely feel the way they do about the music, but I think a lot of times they don’t understand how those racial and cultural expectations that we talked about inform their point of view on things. They don’t take that into account. You’ll get a guy saying that somebody sounds more ‘authentic’ than somebody else if it’s more hood or more gangster, and I don’t think they understand how dangerous of an assertion that is.”

Maron: “ ‘He’s authentic in that he’s exactly what we always expected out of the Negro!’ ”

Eagle: “Exactly, exactly. And you could put that in there and it would make perfect sense. I think a lot of times they don’t step back and realize that they’re helping to perpetuate shit when they do that.”

Maron: “They’re not seeing the artist as an artist. Their opinion is overshadowed by their own stereotype.”

Eagle: “Right. And they’re buried in the context and don’t realize they’re helping to create it, as well. That’s where it gets annoying to me. And that’s what I feel is the obstacle between guys who, like I said, are trying to make this a more substantial — we’re trying to give it the value that art has.”

Take My Breath Away … Again

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In which I take another look at cheesy soundtrack singles, those hallmarks of my youth.

Click here for the piece.

Self-Selecting

There have been a few blog posts and single-serving sites going around recently designed to let you check which of your Facebook friends like certain pop culture artifacts. The point isn’t to discover common interests, though, but to find out who in your social network has expressed even fleeting affection for a person, place, or piece of entertainment usually reserved for public derision. Popular examples: Nickelback, Kim Kardashian, “Two and a Half Men.” The latest of these lists is a piece from Buzzfeed titled “People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately.” It includes the items mentioned above as well as Crocs, Guy Fieri, and other pop ephemera that seem to have been created solely so people would have something to make fun of in their spare time.

Tool-based lists like these are guaranteed viral hits for a number of reasons: they’re easy to implement, simple to use, and they’re tied to things we’ve been conditioned to violently hate, or at least feel strongly about. I don’t like Rush Limbaugh, or Ed Hardy, or “Whitney,” or really anything on the list. Yet how selfish would I have to be to only befriend people whose political and cultural tastes were exactly aligned with mine? I don’t have to agree with my friend’s choices about pop culture. There will always be areas where we overlap and those where we don’t. What does it mean that we want to think about eliminating those presences from our lives? Even as a joke, on Facebook?

One of the things I love about being a film and TV critic is digging into something and thinking about what it means, and then using that investigation to start a conversation. I love encouraging people to think about these things; I love being encouraged to do so by the critics I admire. The point isn’t to only read reviews I agree with, but to do my best to see where someone is coming from. I don’t have to stop respecting someone, or terminate a real or digital friendship, simply because they enjoy DVRing “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” If I did that, I’d be horribly close-minded.

That’s what I’m worried we might be coming to. Not in a rush, but slowly, one sarcastic and self-aware step at a time. I clicked on the link in the Buzzfeed article attached to George W. Bush to see which of my Facebook friends like/Like the former president. About a dozen do, though who knows how many like him without having expressed it online. I feel a great dislike for much of Bush’s presidency and the debacle that was the dual wars he waged, but my feelings toward those friends who like Bush haven’t changed one bit after learning that they support a president whose actions I often found intolerable. They have different opinions on him than I do. They hold different beliefs. I’m not going to kick them out of my life for being different from me, and I wouldn’t want them to cut me out of their own lives, either. I’d like to think we find more to care about in each other than a voting record and viewing habits.

Soundtracking: “Bad Reputation,” Freedy Johnston

I’m fascinated by how it’s possible to be nostalgic for something that happened in your lifetime but that you didn’t actually experience firsthand when it happened. Case in point, for me: early-1990s alternative rock and pop. I love great guitar pop from this era, even though I was too young for it at the time. I was 12 in 1994, and as I’ve said, I was a musically sheltered kid who didn’t know what was happening even in mainstream modern rock, let alone the alternative or power-pop worlds I’d come to love so much when I got older.

There’s something about that sound that’s endlessly captivating for me. Part of it’s the fact that kids my age and not much older were into bands I’m only now enjoying, but it’s really a kind of wistfulness that this sound, this energy, was popular right before I was really culturally aware of musical trends outside my parentally prescribed window of country and oldies. Listening to certain records now is like hearing someone describe a party at which I arrived moments too late to do anything but help clean up.

That’s how I feel about Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation.” The singer-songwriter’s fourth album, This Perfect World, hit shelves in the summer of 1994, when I was very much a confused boy who would not at all be able to appreciate Johnston’s witty lyricism or his soulful but poppy angst. It was just a little beyond me at the time, and besides, it wasn’t even on my cultural radar.

I heard the song for the first time on a mix tape some friends made me as a parting gift when I moved to Los Angeles after college. It’s an actual tape, too, and one I wore out through repeated use to the point that the tape itself began to stretch and warp, the songs losing or gaining speed at random. It’s right now locked in the small fireproof safe I use to store things like my wedding certificate and Social Security card. It’s that important to me. The tape was a wonderful mix of pop and hip-hop, rock and soul, and its makers spliced in sound cues that tied into the overarching themes of travel and challenge and that also made the final product feel that much more special. It’s practically impossible to duplicate. Some songs have movie dialogue between them; others cut out halfway through as the next track kicks in abruptly. It’s a work of art.

One of the anchors of the tape is Johnston’s “Bad Reputation,” and the song’s feeling of finding yourself alone in a crowd, looking for someone you can’t forget, cut raggedly to my core as I drove across the country to a new home away from the people I’d spent four years weaving into my life. Everyone goes through the same basic crises right after college, and those years of rockily searching for your identity aren’t that interesting to anyone who wasn’t in them with you, but still, knowing that everyone else was having a tough time didn’t make mine any easier. The first year after college was a tough one for me — my job had low pay and even lower morale, and I went through three apartments and eight roommates in 12 months — and I found myself turning again and again to the songs my friends had put to tape and sent westward with me.

Sometime in those early post-graduate years, I came across Kicking and Screaming. I’d only heard snatches about Noah Baumbach’s first film, and those only in the context of articles that talked about his hiatus in the entertainment industry between writing and directing 1997’s Mr. Jealousy and returning to the field to co-write 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson. I was so glad to find the film, too. It’s a hilarious, sharply written, wonderfully observed comedy about the existential malaise that sets in in your early 20s as you stumble from the cocoon of academia into the unforgiving sunlight of the real world. The jokes worked, the characters were spot-on, and the stories of selfish heartbreak made perfect sense to a young man trying to figure out just what he was going to do with his life.

The film ends on a perfect note of reckless optimism with a young man reaching out to the woman in his life, and as it cuts to black, Baumbach cues up “Bad Reputation.” It was a pretty timely choice from a technical perspective — the film came out in October 1995, just a year after Johnston’s album — but for me it the resonance doubled and trebled, becoming not just a coda for the film but a reference to the very song that had carried me to California on the words and prayers of friends greater and truer than I could ever have imagined having. I didn’t know the song would be there, nor that the film would speak so clearly to what I was living through at the time. But it was, and it did.

The tape my friends made me came with a note and a track listing, scrawled in a messy hand, and the note talks in part about how my friends want me to know that they will always be with me, and that I will always have people in my life willing to share in my joy, offer solace in my grief, or just make me a tape of songs they hope I’ll like. That’s what I think of when I listen to “Bad Reputation.” I remember what it is to be lonely but brave, and loved above all, and to have nothing to hold onto but the knowledge that all things change.

Soundtracking: “Leave the Biker,” Fountains of Wayne

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[See earlier installments here and, I guess, here.]

I was 14 years old in October 1996, two months into my freshman year of high school. My friends at the time were pretty much limited to the few relationships I’d forged at my church’s youth group. School was a much more lonely and daunting place, and I actually spent most of my freshman year eating lunch by myself on the courtyard benches outside the cafeteria. I’m not saying this to engender sympathy; I’m just trying to talk about how I experienced the world back then. I wasn’t happy with my situation, but I was familiar with it.

One of my closest friends — who’d become my best friend, a man I’m still in touch with today — was a kid I knew from the youth group. He went to a different high school, but we bonded over movies. We had similar tastes in film and a shared desire to explore the art form in ways that our other friends didn’t care to: My friend and I were probably the only teens in Texas to leave a Bible study early to catch American History X. He taught me about music, too, and he’s now someone I turn to regularly to discover artists I know I’ll love.

But all of that was later. In 1996, at 14, I was just a quiet, lonesome boy who didn’t know much about anything. My friend turned me onto a band called Fountains of Wayne when we were hanging out at his house one night, and the plaintive, witty power pop was the perfect soundtrack to insular evenings spent playing video games and talking about how much we didn’t understand the girls in our lives. We were listening to Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut, which came out that fall and received a modest amount of attention thanks to the fact that frontman Adam Schlesinger had penned the title song for Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, which hit theaters four days after the band’s album dropped. “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom” were released as singles, but all of the album’s bright, poppy explorations of heartache felt radio-ready. The one that stuck with me, though, was “Leave the Biker.”

“Leave the Biker” is an angular, jangly, downright perfect pop song about a boy or young man beating his head and heart against an invisible wall, wondering with all his might why the girl of his dreams was spending her time and energy on a slovenly thug who didn’t appreciate her (and, it should be noted, had been a real dick to the singer’s character). The singer talks about feeling trapped in his hometown, being unable to find a date, and wondering how he’ll ever make things change. These feelings are, to put it mildly, extremely resonant for lonesome high school freshmen, and the song stuck with me for its frankness and piercing heartbreak all wrapped up in a bubble-gum package. I learned the lyrics without ever trying to, and it became one of those songs everyone has that they sing in the shower or hum to themselves at odd moments. It just became my song.

I stayed with the band from then on. I liked 1999’s Utopia Parkway well enough, especially “It Must Be Summer” and “Red Dragon Tattoo,” but I adored 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers. That was the album that introduced most of the rest of the country to the band: Its first single, “Stacy’s Mom,” was the band’s biggest smash to date, earning the video regular airplay and bringing the band an oddly timed Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, despite having formed almost a decade earlier and releasing two albums before this one. “Hey Julie,” another great song, earned some play thanks to placement in a few TV shows.

Welcome Interstate Managers stayed in a regular rotation for me for years — it became default road-trip music, for instance — but I never let myself get too far from their earlier songs or “Leave the Biker.” The band’s 15 minutes in the MTV spotlight ended, and they went back to being mine, in that way all groups do for fans who’ve been around before the fame hit and will be there long after it’s gone. Traffic and Weather, from 2007, had some great songs, and their latest, Sky Full of Holes, is wonderful.

When I met the woman who’d become my wife, I was living in California and she was living in Texas, which meant many, many phone calls. We discovered not only similar tastes in certain movies and music, but a shared history as singers, too: We both participated in the choir programs at our schools and universities, though her natural voice is stronger than mine. One night on the phone, she asked me to sing for her. I was scared for all the predictable reasons: Our relationship was still young, I was nervous, I wanted her to be impressed, I wanted her to like me, I didn’t want my voice to crack. She wasn’t auditioning me, but asking me to open up. So I did.

I sang “Leave the Biker.” At the time I told myself (and her) that it was the first and easiest song I could remember, and that it wasn’t too much of a strain in terms of range or melody, so I knew I’d be able to easily sing it over the phone. But the truth is it was also a song that had been with me for half my life at that point, and singing it meant saying This is who I am and where I’ve been. It wasn’t just a song I knew; it was something that had gotten me where I was, and a representation of the things about yourself that can only ever be expressed through music. I sang to her, softly, sitting on the edge of my bed in a crowded room in a Los Angeles apartment, reaching out to someone 1,600 miles away. It meant something to share it with her, the way it always does when you find someone so important that you’re willing to disclose the awkward ways you became who you are. That’s why there’s always going to be a divide between what people say is the best band and the one they claim as their favorite. Some stuff just stays with you that way.

Soundtracking: “Buddy Holly,” Weezer

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[Working from the idea that all music is an autobiographical experience, I’d like to try and write about certain songs as they pertain to my life. No telling how often I’ll get around to it.]

Weezer’s debut album — the first of three so far to be self-titled, but usually referred to as The Blue Album or, simply, Blue — was released in May 1994, the summer before my seventh-grade year and a month before I turned 12. The first single, “Undone (The Sweater Song),” was released in June, followed by “Buddy Holly” in September. That was followed by “Say It Ain’t So” in June 1995. All three songs charted well as Weezer became part of the pop consciousness, but “Buddy Holly” probably brought them the most recognition as their hardened pop — what I think of as “edgy shimmer” — took over the airwaves.

I knew none of this at the time. Or rather, I was aware that Weezer was a band that existed, and that they put out songs that kids far cooler than I was would sing in snatches around school. I saw friends listening to Discmans and holding the jewel case with its bright blue cover; I knew of the music video that featured what might be Fonzie; and that was about it. I grew up in a conservative religious household, which influenced what my parents would let me and my younger sister see or listen to (we didn’t watch MTV until I was probably 16, and even then it only happened because there was a glitch with the cable box and the parental controls became unlocked and my folks were too tired to fight the change), so we weren’t exactly steeped in popular rock.

But equally as influential was the fact that my parents just kind of stopped developing musically sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In other words, around the time they got married and then had me. My dad would later tell me of the Clapton and Zeppelin LPs he had in college, and my mother would grin while remembering the Simon and Garfunkel vinyls of her youth. But for the most part, they just didn’t care anymore about what was out there. They didn’t want what was newer, and they didn’t seem to be able to connect to the passion they used to have for what was older. In the car, my father listened to classic country, while my mom preferred the modern country station or, later, oldies. So while it’s tempting to try and equate my ignorance of certain pop songs to my parents’ views on religion, it’s more accurate to place those blank spots within a broader context: They weren’t against music, just indifferent to it.

Because of that, I had to educate myself on the music of my time in whatever ways I could, and I often came to things years late out of nothing more than a desire to explore and appreciate something I’d just barely missed. I heard Weezer on the radio and even snagged a few mp3s at college (the fall of my freshman year was the tail end of the Napster era), but I didn’t own Blue until I was probably 20. I was out shopping with a friend and saw it on sale for $10 or so, and I decided on a whim to buy it.

It is, as everyone who’s heard it knows, a magnificent pop record, full of snappy hooks, dreamy choruses, and enough angst to fuel a million bad mix tapes. It’s an album I can listen to regardless of mood, location, or time of day; it just fits everywhere. Getting to know the album as a whole gave me renewed appreciation for the singles, too. No longer were those songs dispatches from a place I’d never seen. They were now a part of my young adult experience, serving as a soundtrack to my present even as they connected me in new ways to my past.

I lived in Los Angeles for five years after I graduated college, and the joy and pain of that time did more to shape me than anything else ever has. I discovered that Blue fit my awkward young adulthood like a tear-stained glove: “Surf Wax America” for driving down the PCH, “Undone” for the commute home after a night out with friends, “In the Garage” when I was feeling insecure, “Say It Ain’t So” when I needed to howl in the car. The songs became touchstones in my life, tying me to a time and place. I get just as nostalgic when I hear that record as I’d imagine my peers do, but I’m nostalgic for an entirely different time of our lives. They remember pubescent anger and a world viewed through fog; I remember my first job, my first love, my first heartbreak, my first apartment. The life I carved out of rock. The places I shouldn’t have gone. The things I’m glad I did. And the people that went with me.

Moving across the country to a place where no one knows you just to try your hand at a fate that might well destroy you is a challenge like no other. Most people do it in their 20s because that’s when they’re strong enough to take it. I was lucky during my time in California to make some truly great friends and find a fantastic roommate, all of whom made it a bit easier to survive the tough times that no one ever sees coming.

My roommate and I would throw an annual “Burgers, Beer, and Rock Band Bash” in the summer, opening up our apartment to friends all day. We cooked on the grill, swam in the pool, drank more than was wise, and played Rock Band on my roommate’s Xbox 360. They were wonderful days, easy ones, when we all took a break from figuring out adulthood. One year, I was noodling on the plastic guitar with a few others filling out the band when we played — what else? — “Buddy Holly.” It was the ideal song for the day, the kind of easy rocker that makes everyone sing along. I was drunk enough to be happily loose on the guitar, swaggering around and having fun with friends. I’d played the song before on the game but something about it just felt better that night. It was, for reasons I can’t figure out and wouldn’t want to bother trying to, exactly what I needed to hear. As we came to the solo, I slid into the groove without missing a note, feeling the fake/real music moving through me, inebriated enough to be happy I was home but sober enough to be thankful for the moment, surrounded by a family I’d found. I didn’t even think about those final eight notes when only the guitar played, though they’d tripped me up before. I just went into them, right as a friend turned and pointed at me to underscore the absurdity of pretending to be a band and the weird bliss of almost being them, and I nailed every note, and we all came back in together and sang our youth to the stars, I was a rock star, I was Buddy Holly, I was home.